Pet overpopulation is a widespread problem. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that three to four million animals die in American shelters each year, most for lack of adoptive homes. Of the dogs taken into shelters annually, at least 25 percent are purebred [source: HSUS]. Yet many people looking for a new pet end up buying one because they can't find what they want in their local shelter or don't want to go there for fear that it will be too upsetting.
Petfinder.com, the largest pet Web site on the Internet, is working to change the problem by connecting homeless animals with the people who want them. Petfinder works almost like an Internet dating service. It allows prospective adopters to search a database of available pets based on search criteria such as breed, age, size and gender.
Petfinder.com opens animal shelters and rescue organizations to adopters across the country via the Internet. Both large and small animal groups can display their inventory of animals in a user-friendly format, and prospective adopters can easily find what they want. From mice to horses, affenpinschers to Yorkshire terriers, Petfinder has all kinds of animals for adoption.
In this article, we'll see how Petfinder has managed to get free advertising and become one of the fastest-growing sites on the Internet. We'll also look how the site organized and regulated a notoriously opinionated group of people, commanded fierce loyalty and accomplished a social good.
In 1995, Jared and Betsy Saul were frustrated by what they saw as a failure to exploit the Internet's potential, and they made a New Year's resolution to implement a project for some social good. Betsy's previous volunteer work with a local rescue made her aware of the plight of unwanted animals, so that's where the Sauls devoted their energy. They decided to create a Web site where shelters could list their animals for prospective adopters and increase the number of people that were able to see them. The Sauls approached shelters in their home state of New Jersey, but most were initially skeptical, concerned about exposing their animals to danger, and unsure if it would work.
They continued to contact shelters as part of a grassroots effort, and eventually some of them signed on. Jared built the Web site while he was in medical school. Since most shelters still didn't have computers, they faxed their lists to the Sauls' neighbor, who slid the lists under the door. After coming home from her job as a ground water hydrologist, Betsy uploaded the animal's descriptions to the site.
From the beginning, the Sauls paid close attention to their constituents. They knew that they needed a fast, simple user-friendly site, because their members were chronically overworked and often not very familiar with new technology.
When the idea spread and a few sponsors signed on, Betsy Saul quit her day job to devote herself to Petfinder full-time. In 1998, the site went national, and in 2000, it became an international group with the addition of Canada.
The business model of Petfinder has been similar to that of a nonprofit agency, but Petfinder is not a nonprofit group. The founders say they made this decision because they wanted the ability to seek corporate sponsorship, rather than compete with their constituents for nonprofit dollars. In 2003, Petfinder established the Petfinder.com Foundation, a public charity designed initially to assist with natural disasters. In late 2006, Discovery Communications acquired Petfinder.
Next, we'll take a look at the facts and figures behind Petfinder -- just how many servers does it take to find homes for so many animals?
The Petfinder.com Foundation gives grants to assist rescue groups afflicted by natural disasters. In the aftermath of Hurricane , Petfinder staff mobilized to help both affected members and private citizens who had to abandon their pets. Working around the clock, Petfinder programmers created a database of animals as they recovered them, allowing displaced owners to locate their pets. Petfinder estimates that this effort reunited about 3,000 animals with their owners. The Petfinder.com Foundation also offered financial assistance to rescue groups that took in and treated pets made homeless by the disaster.
Facts and Figures
A typical user spends about 13 minutes browsing Petfinder in one session and looks at around 20 pages. There are currently more than 262,200 animals listed on Petfinder, mostly dogs and cats. Many shelters report that over half their adoptions come from Petfinder and that their euthanasia rates have dropped substantially since they began using the site. Since its inception, Petfinder has been behind the placement of more than 12 million animals.
More than 11,440 groups have listings on Petfinder, and over 1 million animals were adopted through the site in the past year. Petfinder has members in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, St. Martin, Jamaica, Guam and the Virgin Islands. Petfinder receives more than 4.6 million site visitors and more than180 million page views each month.
All of this traffic is routed through more than 50 servers located in Secaucus, N.J., all maintained by a single systems administrator. Currently Petfinder has four major sponsors, whose contributions pay for staffing, servers, and outreach in exchange for advertising space and promotions at conferences. Petfinder also raises money by selling space on their site to advertisers.Getting a Petfinder site is free, but in order to create one, a group either must be a municipal animal shelter or submit documentation proving their non-profit status and a veterinarian reference or, if they do not have official nonprofit status, a copy of their adoption contract and a veterinarian reference. People selling animals for profit may not use Petfinder. However, a group does not need to have official nonprofit status in order to get a site.
The groups on Petfinder are sometimes as different as the pets they list.
Shelters and Pounds
For most people, the "dog pound" is a familiar place to find unwanted pets. Local government-run animal control facilities and animal shelters take in stray and unwanted animals and usually house them for a set period of time. These facilities that must take in any animal must euthanize animals when space runs out. In contrast, groups that can be selective about which animals they accept don't have to euthanize animals due to lack of space. These groups are called "no-kill."
County shelters may or may not offer medical care. Some facilities spay or neuter animals before adopting them out, while others require people to alter the pets within a certain timeframe following the adoption.
Foster-based rescues often depend heavily on the Internet or remote pet adoption sites. Usually these all-volunteer groups keep unwanted animals in private homes until they are adopted. Because these groups do not euthanize animals except in cases of severe medical or behavioral problems, they are usually full. These organizations may comprise a large group of people or a single home. To meet one of these animals, prospective adopters usually schedule an appointment or come to an adoption day held at stores like Petco and Petsmart. In the next section, we'll take a look at the groups on Petfinder, and how these groups use the site to save pets.
Thanks to Petfinder Vice President Kim Saunders, the volunteers of the rescue group LIFE for Pets, and the members of the Germanshepherds.com discussion forum, for their assistance with this article.
Groups on Petfinder
As the name implies, breed-specific rescues accept only animals of their designated breed. Many will accept them regardless of their age, physical condition or veterinary needs. These groups are usually "no kill." They take in animals of their breed from animal shelters as well as owner surrenders.
In addition to the formal rescue groups and shelters, there are Petfinder listings for veterinarians' offices and vet schools that routinely rescue unwanted animals, as well as a few small groups started and run by children.
Beyond Dogs and Cats
Similar to "breed rescue," there are special rescues for animals other than dogs and cats. There are horse rescue groups and ferret rescue groups, bird rescue groups and reptile rescue groups. You can even find a pig on Petfinder. Though there are fewer of these groups on Petfinder, their numbers are growing.
How Groups Use Petfinder
Different groups may overlap and, in an ideal scenario, they work together. Rescue groups not only use Petfinder to place their pets, but to communicate with each other and to surf shelters for animals they feel they can help.
Breed enthusiasts frequently search Petfinder looking for their breed in municipal shelters; the rescue group often takes these animals, making room for other animals at the shelter. The pictures posted on Petfinder allow breed specialists to locate and save dogs that they never would have known about otherwise.
In regions where effective spay/neuter programs have reduced the number of available animals needing homes, Petfinder enables local groups to find adoptable homeless animals in areas that still need assistance. These animals travel with the help of volunteers and transport companies to places where there is higher demand. Using Petfinder allows a rescue group in Vermont to save an unwanted dog in South Carolina.
Once a group is issued a site, it's a simple matter to add their information and begin uploading pets. To post a pet on Petfinder, a member must log in to the administration page using his or her shelter ID and password. Once in, the member can upload a new pet, as well as change or modify the listing of existing animals.
The "Add New Pet" page has pulldown menus for breed, age, size and gender as well as check boxes for veterinary and training status and adoption restrictions. Petfinder allows a maximum of two breeds, three pictures and one video for each pet. However, the narrative portion can include a more extensive biography, as well as adoption and contact info for the group.
With practice, a member can easily upload a new pet in just a few minutes. This is important because spare time is scarce for rescue workers and time is usually of the essence for the animals.
Rescue groups can track the number of hits each animal gets or can break down interest by breed. They can search for new volunteers or edit their homepage. Everything is user-friendly and does not require any knowledge of HTML or programming. When an animal is adopted, administrators can change its status to "adopted," thereby adding it to their list of "Happy Tails."
The Petfinder Classifieds
Nonmembers and private individuals who wish to list a pet in need of a new home can do so in the Petfinder Classified section. Although the classified section does not include pictures, it can be a good way to publicize an animal that needs help. Another option is to approach a local rescue or breed rescue about doing a "courtesy post" on their site. Many are happy to list animals, even if they don't have foster space to take them in physically. Some groups will even help you screen prospective homes.
The Petfinder classified section also has a place where anyone can post lost and found pets.
Next, we'll look at how you can find a pet on Petfinder.com.
The Price of Popularity
It should come as no surprise that the most popular breeds of dogs also have the highest number of Petfinder listings. Labrador retrievers and German shepherds top the list with thousands of animals regularly featured for each breed.
As certain breeds increase in popularity, often because of a fad or a movie, those breeds begin to show up in animal shelters in increasing numbers as well. When an animal becomes popular, unscrupulous breeders begin to produce dogs to meet the demand, often with little attention to genetic screening, health or temperament. Each release of "101 Dalmatians" has been followed by a surge of Dalmatians needing homes, because Christmas puppies lose their appeal and new owners discover that this high-energy breed is not the appropriate pet for every lifestyle. The popularity spike of the golden retriever has been matched by an increase in such hereditary disorders as hip dysplasia, heart defects and epilepsy. The recent interest in "designer dogs," especially those billed as "hypoallergenic," is already resulting in the surrender and abandonment of many of these animals when they failed to deliver. Sometimes it's good to be unpopular.
Finding a Pet
As you start looking for a pet, keep in mind that each group has its own adoption policies, and it's important for would-be adopters to understand the policies of the group they're dealing with. Groups may require that adopters have a fence or may prohibit adoptions to homes with small children. Others may not care about either of these things. Some groups allow out-of-area adoptions, and others don't. Some groups may do extensive reference checks on all applicants and others may be first come, first served.
Adoption fees vary widely among different shelters and rescue groups. Some county shelters have low adoption fees but provide little or nothing in the way of veterinary care or evaluation. Others offer their animals fully vetted. Some rescue groups take care of all veterinary needs prior to adopting, others may require that adopters sign a contract or make a deposit to get the work done themselves. A quick search of Petfinder reveals adoption fees ranging from $15 to $350.
Typically, these fees reflect the amount of veterinary care that has gone into the animal, but county shelters and humane societies may have lower adoption fees than rescue groups with the same amount of veterinary work if the shelter receives external subsidies. Most small independent rescues rely on adoption fees to cover their medical bills and must charge accordingly. County shelters typically have the lowest fees, and breed-specific rescues, particularly those that deal with smaller breeds, usually have the highest. Severe problems such as dental decay and heartworms can generate medical bills ranging into the thousands of dollars. An animal's adoption fee may reflect its individual medical needs or it may reflect an average cost to the group, with healthy animals subsidizing the care of other animals with more problems. Adoption costs also vary by region and breed.
Petfinder charges members nothing for its services and retains no part of the adoption fees. It leaves all decisions about medical treatment, adoption fees, adoption requirements, and animal care to its members, with the understanding that they treat animals humanely and do not sell them for profit. Although Petfinder staff make an effort to screen and get to know their members, it is not possible for them to check out or monitor all rescues in person. For this reason, prospective adopters and rescue groups alike should be alert and careful when using Petfinder.
Many of the search categories listed on Petfinder are subjective. One person's "large" is another's "medium." Some groups may consider an animal under 3 years old to be "young," while another might limit that category to animals under 6 months. Not all posters are equally skilled at breed identification. To maximize success, you may want to expand your search.
Using the Site
Before starting a Petfinder search, it's good to consider everything from your schedule and obligations to what colors and coat textures appeal to you. Although it's easy to search widely on Petfinder, it's better to have an idea of what you're looking for. The sad reality is that there are so many animals in need of a home, most adopters can imagine and then locate their dream pet.
Let's follow "Jane Doe" through the Petfinder process.
Jane is looking for a dog. She had dogs as a child and enjoyed the companionship. Jane wants a dog that looks intimidating because she lives alone, but it must also be good with strangers because she often has visitors. Jane jogs regularly and wants a dog that can go with her. Jane works full-time and doesn't have a lot of time to spend on housebreaking or training a new puppy. She also decides that she doesn't want to deal with a lot of grooming, so she'd like a dog with short hair. Jane looks through some dog books and decides she likes the look and style of greyhounds, but wants something a little more rugged. Armed with this information, Jane heads to Petfinder.com.
There is a basic search bar on the left side of the page. If Jane decides to do a more elaborate search, she can click the "advanced search" link beneath the basic search form. The first step is to enter her zip code. Jane lives in Lexington, Kentucky, so she starts looking locally. Jane specifies "greyhound" and hits search. Immediately, she gets a list. Some of these dogs are purebred greyhounds, and some of them are mixes. They vary a lot in size and age.
There are also a fair number of Italian greyhound mixes, but these are all smaller than what Jane is looking for. Jane looks at a few pictures but there are too many choices. She decides to refine her search so that it only includes adult dogs, then she decides to use the "advanced search" function so she can limit the search to exact breed matches for "Greyhound." This time she gets fewer listings.
If Jane had been searching Labradors or another very popular breed, she might have needed to refine her search further, but since greyhounds are not as common, she gets a manageable number. Also, all searches begin with animals closest to the entered zip code and work their way outward. Jane clicks on the photo or listing to read more about each animal. She can click on the group name to see the group's home page and read about their policies.
Jane likes the look of a dog named Danny Boy.
He's a year-old greyhound mix who is good with other dogs. He likes playtime and quiet time -- Jane likes that idea, so she puts in an application.
This step varies from group to group, but in this case she can use the contact information listed in Danny Boy's biography to get an application, or she can go to the rescue's Web page and submit one online. The shelter then screens the application and decides that Jane would be a good match for Danny Boy. They arrange to meet with her, Jane adopts Danny Boy, and they live happily ever after.
As mentioned above, adoption policies vary by group; most groups list them on the group's home page. (NOTE: Danny Boy is a real dog, but alas, Jane is not a real person.)
We'll look at Petfinder's effect on pet adoption in the next section.
The Petfinder Effect
Since the creation of Petfinder, other sites have begun offering similar services. Petfinder does not require that its members restrict their listings to its site, and Petfinder Vice President Kim Saunders says that rescuers have a responsibility to use whatever resources they think will help animals find homes. Many Petfinder users point out that any listing service is most effective when everything is listed and located in one place, so multiple registries may dilute the effectiveness of any individual site.
One of Petfinder's greatest strengths is its willingness to listen to its constituents and respond with new services and adjustments to existing services. Petfinder regularly surveys its members looking for areas to improve and new needs to address.
Kim Saunders points out that the shelter world in many ways is like a constant disaster: It's incredibly high stress, particularly when the people who are involved care the most and are therefore affected the most. Shelter staff and rescue volunteers are prone to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and have high rates of burnout.
Over the course of its development, Petfinder has developed a library of articles and resources for animal professionals, and it has message boards where people can discuss rescue and animal issues. Petfinder even brings seminars on animal behavior and shelter care to its members across the country, since many are unable to travel very far.
The impact of Petfinder goes far beyond the number of animals saved. The site publicizes the enormity of the pet overpopulation problem and the plight of shelter animals. One visit to Petfinder will explode any myths that all shelter animals are old, sick or unadoptable. The sheer number of animals listed drives home the importance of spaying, neutering and responsible pet care.
For lots more information on Petfinder and related topics, check out the links on the next page.